It’s a routine op. Drop in under cover of darkness, locate an enemy VIP – some collaborating scumbag, no doubt – and take ‘em with us, dead or alive. Quick in, quick out. Minimal resistance. Cakewalk.
There are enemy Interceptors en route, so my evac won’t stick around for long. That means we’ve gotta move fast. I make a beeline for the VIP’s last known position. It’s not long before my Duchess, dashing ahead with her shotgun ready, spots the first ADVENT position and calls it in: one Officer, one Trooper, and one Stun Lancer up on the closest rooftop. Easy pickings.
We’re tight for time, and I don’t want to divert the full squad up for a few measly enemy soldiers, so I send over Duchess, Warbird, and a rookie Ranger to back them up, keeping them just out of the enemy eyeline, while the other half of the squad pushes down the left flank at ground level. This is my first mistake.
No sooner has half my squad reached the rooftop and readied to attack than the ADVENT scum drops back down the other side, returning to the Fog of War that conceals them from me. I’m back in the dark. I push further on, more cautiously now. It’s still the early days of my campaign, but I’ve seen enough ops go bad to know that this could turn at any moment.
Two turns down.
Warbird, Gremlin support drone hovering over his shoulder, creeps forwards on the roof, looking for the oblivious patrol group. And there they are – just off the far edge, waiting on the ground. Crappy sightlines, but I can make do. Except… fuck. Second mistake. They’re not all I’ve found. High ground means better visibility. Now I’ve spotted a second group: two Vipers, poisonous snake men right out of a Conan novel; and a Codex, a trippy, holographic cyber enemy with a pesky habit of cloning itself. Guarding my target, a cowering human I need to either kill or carry out of here with me.
I quickly run through the possibilities open to me. I don’t relish a 6v6 fight, not least with a couple of Vipers in the mix. I could wait, reposition, get those Troopers on their own again for an easy win before regrouping to take on the larger threat. But that fucking turn counter is there, reminding me with every pulse that time is running out, that I can’t afford to take it slow, wait it out. I’ve got to move. Now.
We’re spread too thin. Half my squad is stuck on the roof, no view on the enemy. The other half is back to the left – eyeline to the VIP, but nothing on the Troopers. I drop Duchess down to the ground. I move up on the left, set an Overwatch or two. I ready my ambush, as best as I can. It’s time.
My position is precarious, everything hinges on the next few shots. Naturally, apart from my opening grenade salvo, my elite unit are apparently cosplaying Stormtroopers today, carefully shooting around their targets for dramatic effect. Oh good.
The alien retaliation is swift and punishing. The rookie is the first to go, felled by a couple of lucky shots in succession. Man down. A Viper flicks its tongue across the street, lassoing Duchess into its crushing grip. The Codex finishes up by unleashing a purple cloud of bullshit attack that disables half my squad’s weapons and will explode in a turn or so.
I’m not losing Duchess. She’s my girl. She’s been part of the XCOM project since day one, and she’s not fucking dying on my watch. Priority one: get her back. A quick shot across the street from Warbird leaves the Viper in a bloody heap, and Duchess free. One point blank shotgun attack later, and his other freaky snake buddy has joined him. I take the regular Trooper out this turn too, and wound the Codex – just enough to make it clone itself. Now there are two of them.
Four turns down.
That Viper dragged Duchess deep behind enemy lines, and all of a sudden she’s paying for it: that ADVENT Stun Lancer I’d been ignoring makes a run for her, getting all kinds of personal with his glorified tazer. I barely have time to come up with a witty quip about police brutality before she’s on the ground, first writhing, then out cold. Fuck.
I’ve had enough of this bullshit. I get lucky, and Scratch and Taxman take down the Stun Lancer and Officer between them with a couple of pinpoint shots. Warbird fires off a pot shot, downing one of the Codexes (Codices?). Nitro unleashes the full power of her Big Fucking Gun at the only one still standing: there’s not much left by the time she’s done.
That takes care of the imminent threat, but my problems aren’t over. There are five turns left on the clock, and I’m at least three away from my evac point. I’m down to five soldiers, and one of them is lying in a puddle of their own drool. It’ll take one to carry them, and another to lug the VIP out (I’m taking that fucker home for an interrogation, goddamnit). That leaves two left to fight, but I know there are only three aliens left on the map. I can do this. Maybe.
We head off. The clock’s running out, so there’s no time for niceties like defensive moves and Overwatch – this is a dash to the finish line. I’ve got Warbird running point, but as he rounds the next corner, evac in sight, a Muton crashes down from a rooftop vantage point, Troopers in tow. Fuck. I’ve over-extended myself – only one action left this turn, and in a panic I waste it on a bad shot. Shit.
As anyone who’s played XCOM 2 can probably guess, this is the perfect moment to find out that ADVENT reinforcements are now on the way. I’ve got one turn to get ready for them, while taking out the enemies already shooting at me. It goes without saying that I don’t kill anyone on my next turn. Only Warbird and Scratch have their weapons out, and they rack up a hit and a miss between them as I inch towards my exit.
I feel a pit in my stomach as the enemy reinforcements drop in. Three more guys. That makes six between me and escape, and time running desperately short. I move up to the next set of cover, and line up shots. I down the Muton, as he’s the biggest, ugliest guy nearby. Warbird clips a Trooper. That leaves four. It’s not enough to give me much hope.
Meanwhile, I’m under fire again. A Stun Lancer has a crack at Warbird, but apparently there is a God – he doesn’t quite go down. I’m still in this. Everyone’s running pretty ragged, but the occasional heal has kept my few remaining troops on their feet. I begin to wonder why I decided it was so important to carry this VIP out with me – I could really use Nitro’s firepower right now – but I’m nothing if not stubborn, and my pride won’t let me set him down now.
Two turns left. It’s now or never. I’m about as close as I can get to my exit without losing cover. A quick check: everyone can make it out this turn… except one. Scratch, stalwartly holding the rear, falls just a couple tiles short. My mind is racing. Cliché as it may be, when it comes to XCOM, I’m a bit of a ‘no man left behind’ devotee. When my team evacs, they evac together, no exceptions. But they’re on death’s door, and I’m not sure half of them will survive another turn on the map.
I feel sick as I move them to safety, each soldier following my orders to leave their squadmate behind, with three enemies’ sights bearing down on him. Should I feel this guilty about betraying a randomly generated character? I don’t think I can help it. Scratch moves up, sticking to cover, and gets his pistol out, ready for his last stand.
Except it never comes. Instead of pressing the advantage, one by one my opponents go to Overwatch, waiting for me to make my move. They’re toying with me. There’ll be no quick kill, no mercy. They want to watch Scratch run for it, to gun him down as he flees. But in their hubris, they’ve given me hope. There’s a gauntlet to be run, but I’ll be damned if I’m giving up here.
Heart pounding, sweat pricking my brow, my final turn begins. Deep breath. Make the move. Scratch leaps over the flimsy barricade that had offered him shelter, eyes on one thing: the evac flares. An enemy spots him immediately, raises his rifle, takes the shot. Fuck. It’s a hit. But somehow, by the grace of some unknown god, it’s not a kill. Scratch is still limping on.
A second Overwatch triggers. Another Trooper, another rifle, another shot. Miss. Scratch is still going, moments from freedom. Finally, the ADVENT Officer, snazzy scarf billowing in the wind, lines up his shot. This is it. Death or victory, in this one moment, this one roll of the virtual die.
When the plasma beam blasts over Scratch’s head, I can’t quite believe my eyes. Nor can I when he reaches the evac, or calls down for the rope to lift him out of harm’s way. I’d stared down what felt like certain defeat, given up ten times over, fumed at myself for stupid risks and rookie mistakes. But here I was. Freedom. Victory. Scraped, clawed, fought for. But mine.
Fuck you, XCOM 2. I win.